Monday, February 18, 2013

These Cold Days of February

As I reviewed dozens of archived blog posts in preparation for publication of the book of The Educated Dog, I found myself laughing at how often I wrote, “I love this time of year.” 

Spring: I love this time of year with its promise of renewal and the smell of…. 

Fall: I love this time of year with its welcome of introspection and the warm, sunny days we get here on the…. 

January: I love this time of year with its counterpoint of reflection on the past and dreams of the….

Now and then, I’m accused of being a Pollyanna, and it’s at moments like this that I wonder if my accusers are right.  But I’ll tell you something, right here and now.  There’s a time of year I emphatically do not love.  February.

I don’t know what it is, but February is a challenging month.  Popes may not be my favorite people in history, but old Gregory XIII wasn’t as dumb as he looked.  Now that I’ve offended somewhere in the neighborhood of half my reading audience, let me hurry on to make a point.  Designating February as the shortest month of the year has probably saved untold lives, preserved marriages, protected billions from crippling despair.  Imagine if February were regularly thirty days long!  Those two extra days (three in leap years!) of the grueling slog that is the second month would bring strong men to their knees, make women weep and cause children to grow old before our eyes.

Maybe February just carries some bad juju.  Depending on who you read, the name comes from the Etruscan and Roman god Februus, associated with purification and death, or Febris, the Roman goddess of fever.  Either way, it doesn’t feel like the month got off to a good start.  Maybe it’s challenging because it’s such a long stretch from winter vacation to spring break.  First quarter, everything’s new.  Second quarter, you’re settling in and beginning to feel comfortable.  Fourth quarter is the roller-coaster on the downward rush to the end of the year.  But during third quarter, you put your head down and push on.  Or maybe the month is tough because we’re getting sick of the short days, the long hours of darkness.  We’re suffering from communal seasonal affective disorder.  Around here, it’s certainly not the snow or cold weather.  Last week we had highs in the 70s with glorious sun, perfectly blue skies and gentle breezes.  That didn’t stop the student meltdowns from happening.

One poor fellow has been sick and out of school since mid-December.  He made a triumphant return on Wednesday only to suffer a setback and be out again on Thursday and Friday.  Seniors, especially those who have received college acceptances already, are digging deep to find the motivation to write that paper or study for that Stats test.  Even the reminder that they have to pass their courses in order to graduate in order to actually matriculate at the college of their choice doesn’t always provide the inspiration they need. 

My office sees a constant flow of teenagers coming in to talk about depression or frustration.  One, speaking barely above a whisper, seems surprised when I suggest that her afternoon headache may have been triggered by low blood sugar given that she hasn’t eaten all day.  A snack of fruit, nuts and water miraculously restores her.  Another flops into a chair and downloads a list of grievances against his parents, led chiefly by their unreasonable insistence that he not only do his assigned homework, but also turn it in. 

It’s not only students who are on their last frayed nerve.  “I don’t understand why she’s not getting this,” an exasperated father sighed the other day with a weary shake of his head.  “I keep helping her every time it comes up.”

“How do you help her?” I ask him, dreading the answer I’m betting I’ll get.

“I show her how to do it.”

“You show her?  How?”

“I do it for her.”

I try, as diplomatically as I can, to tell him that when he does the assignment for his daughter, she doesn’t have the chance to fully absorb the lesson.  “Maybe you could let her do it on her own, even if she gets it wrong.  Don’t we learn best from our own mistakes?  After all, the teacher will let her make corrections for extra credit.”

“But she’ll crash and burn!” he exclaims.

I want so much to tell him it’s one assignment in freshman history, for heaven’s sake!  It’s not the make-or-break moment of her life.  But I don’t, of course.  It’s so much more complicated than that.  This is his little girl, after all.  And there’s no small amount of his own self-concept wrapped up in her success, either.

Moments like this remind me of my mother.  When she was in her late forties and we daughters were pretty much self-sufficient, she decided she wanted to finally earn the college degree her father believed belonged only to boys.  She enrolled at a local community college and nervously dipped her toe in the waters of English 1A.  Her long-term goal was a Bachelor’s in Anthropology, but that was a secret she didn’t voice to many people.  She liked to read, but never had much time, so she figured starting with an English class would be a good way to get back into the school mindset; it had been thirty years since she’d been a student.  The time came for her to write her first essay and she was unsure how to get started, so she went to my father to ask his advice.  He wrote psychiatric papers by the ream every year, presenting them at conferences in the US and Europe.  Surely he could set her on the right road.  In his zeal to help and to show her how it was done, he wrote the paper himself.  It earned an A and the respect of the professor.  What it said to my mother was that her husband didn’t have faith in her ability to do it on her own.  Mom struggled through the mid-term exam, but didn’t go back to the class, or the college, after that. 

There are times when what we really need from the people we love the most is to know that they trust us to fail with grace, and that we will learn from that failure.  I have no doubt that it’s one of the toughest things a parent ever does for a child.  The anxious lament I hear most often is, “How will I know when letting him fail will be more destructive than educational?”  My unsatisfying response always contains some variation of “Trust yourself; you’ll know.”

Oh, how cavalier I can be!  Although I truly believe that a parent will know and that the really dire situations are extremely rare, I’m also the one who gets teary when I have to leave an anxious Cleo with the groomer for a couple hours.  And talk about avoiding the educational experience!  I’d rather go completely out of my way rather than have her face the challenge of walking past an exuberant dog.  And aren't I the one who, in class, will sneakily adjust my own position so that Cleo looks like she's done the command correctly?  

So here we are in February when my own self-doubt runs at a high ebb.  The cushion of patience between faculty members is wearing kinda thin, and when they come in to talk about student problems, parent problems, or their own problems, I'm not as sure as I am at other times of the year that I'll have an answer that will help.  I find myself stealing moments to bury my face in Cleo's piney smelling hair or to gaze into her understanding eyes as I dodge that ever-licking tongue and the application of copious amounts of puppy spit all over my face.

Even she, enthusiasm incarnate, has been affected by the February gloom.  She spends most of each day curled up on the couch sleeping.  When visitors come in, she’ll rouse herself long enough to get up and tag their calves with her damp nose.  If they’re interested in playing, she’ll indulge them, but if not, she’s perfectly content to amble back to the couch, curl up with her nose tucked under her paw and sleep the offending month away.

Come to think of it, it’s a pretty good plan.


  1. Hey, c'mon - you're in California. You don't know from cold!

    1. I hear ya! But in my defense, we had several days of 30 degree weather. Yes, yes, I can hear you groaning in mock sympathy now, all you New Englanders and northern Midwesterners. "Ooo!" you say. "Not actual days of cold weather!"

      Does it count that I went to college in Vermont...?

      Bundle up and stay warm out there!

  2. What a poignant presentation of the parental error in wanting our children so much to succeed that we don't let them learn what they need to learn. Thanks, Joyce! I was sad to hear your mom decided not to try any further. Good lesson on your point though, not to crush our children's desire to "do it myself, Mom!"